Supercharging Emerging Tech Ecosystems via “Hacker” Tourism

I‘ve been working on an idea to supercharge emerging tech ecosystems for a while now. The idea is in its 4th iteration, and I think I’ve gotten enough initial feedback to share it publicly, hopefully without making a fool of myself. I choose to share my idea openly to get further validation and possibly funding interest. I’m not bothered if someone else copies this and makes it successful before we do; that’s perfect validation.

Geeks are the lifeblood of emerging tech ecosystems

Paul Graham thinks rich people and nerds are the limiting reagents in the reaction to create startups and ultimately technology hubs. I agree with the basic model, but would like to add the caveat that it should be rich people familiar with tech; 11.4% of Singapore households are millionaires and the country is a magnet for rich people, but I can count the number of local angels willing to invest in early stage startups with the fingers on one hand. I also think it’s the smarts behind the money, and not money itself, that’s needed to help emerging tech ecosystems break out.  Having said that, I’m not worried about smart money; they’re now sufficiently global and plugged-in to show up relatively quickly when stuff happens.

I’d like to contend too, that Paul should have used the term geek instead of nerd. I wasn’t able to find an authoritative definition with a quick Google search, but found something I liked in a forum discussion thread:

“Dork” is purely derogative. There is no implication of any skills (or useful knowledge) whatsoever. Interest may be present, but no actual skills.”Nerd” is also derogative but skills and/or knowledge are present. However a useful outlet for those skills is usually missing. Amateur status is also implied. For example: a “Computer Nerd” is most likely your neighbor who is quite familiar with the workings of the internet. (He/She might be able to install an extra hard-disk in a computer but is clueless about LVD SCSI.

“Geek” is similar to “Nerd” in basic description. “Geek” however implies hireability (for their skills and/or knowledge). Key to “Geek” is the implication of hireability.

While the availability of capital could matter, I think recent trends such as proliferation of the lean startup, agile software development, test and behavior driven development and open development frameworks like Python Django and Ruby Rails (thanks @shadowsun7 for the correction) have given consumer internet entrepreneurs little excuse to blame the lack of investor interest for their inability to implement a minimum viable product, collect user data, and iterate and improve on their service. An emerging tech ecosystem which has managed to score a handful of smallish exits (herehere and here), a swathe of funded early-stage startups, an incubator or two and a bustling tech events scene would be more critically hurt by a shortage of startup-friendly geeks than a dearth of investment capital.

I conveniently assume a focus on Consumer Internet, because I think it is the most capital- and talent-efficient form of innovation for any aspiring tech hub to initially focus on. You don’t need much capital, and assuming you’re doing it right, you will know really fast if it’s going places or not. I’m less positive on approaches towards building tech hubs via basic research and tech transfer, unless you’ve got a Xerox PARC or MIT Media Lab in your backyard.

Tree roots (cross section)

Geeks is to Emerging Tech Ecosystems as Oxygen is to Supercharged Engines

If your emerging tech ecosystem is anything like Singapore’s, your supply of geeks is probably constrained due to any mix (or all) of these 4 factors:

  1. Universities are not producing enough l33t software engineers.
  2. The local financial services sector is skewing the opportunity cost equation with their excessive packages.
  3. Socio-cultural limitations on the local talent pool, i.e. general risk averseness, preference for incremental instead of long-term gains, peer and/or parental pressure, lack of acceptance of repeated failures, etc.
  4. Inflexible, regressive government immigration policies

No matter how dire the situation is on the talent front, there’s always the positive deviants; early data from Startup Roots Singapore’s inaugural batch of Summer Fellows has told me that much. Unfortunately, relying on the local talent pool isn’t scalable. The only logical approach is the forced induction of geeks from abroad into the emerging tech hub in a sustainable and meaningful manner.

“Hacker” Tourism

I propose to raise at least S$1.2 million for the creation of the Startup Roots Singapore Global Fellows initiative. Each year, Startup Roots Singapore would award a maximum of 50 Global Fellowships, each worth S$20,000 to deserving young talent from around the world (Singapore included) in the fields of software engineering and UI/UX design; 50 x $20k = $1m. The other $200k is for operations.

These fellows would spend a year in Singapore, of which at least 3 months is spent working on a project at a participating Global Fellows host startup. On top of their on-the-job training, these fellows will be given access to added perspectives and experience via a Speaker Series that lets them meet experienced engineers, entrepreneurs and investors. I think an active talent search through (1) physical platforms, i.e. universities, barcamps, with the help of a global network of like-minded engineers, and (2) via online platforms like GitHub and StackOverflow can help us to understand and tweak the “product” and our selection process and criteria. Once the model is refined and the Global Fellows initiative has gained traction and recognition, it can then toggle to a more passive wait-and-they’ll-come approach.

Assuming the initiative selects the right profile of talent, I expect a good percentage of Global Fellows to be hired at or before the end of their year, solving the shortage of hirable geeks faced by most startups in emerging tech hubs. Another portion of fellows will return home and end up in mainstream careers, which isn’t as cool but unavoidable. The remaining Global Fellows would have outgrown their host startups, found co-founders amongst themselves, and choose to start new ventures either in Singapore or back in their home countries, which would be awesome. This initiative has the potential to address 2 issues faced by emerging tech hubs, namely (1) the shortage of hackers willing to work for startups (for reasons already made clear) and (2) the shortage of early-stage deal flow (as any indigenous talent may not recycle back into the ecosystem from their startups fast enough).

Charlie O’Donnell of First Round Capital said my idea sounded like “hacker” tourism. It is a lot easier to understand as a concept than what I originally came up with. I think S$20,000 is significant enough a sum to attract the best and brightest in developing cities/countries with little or no tech activity or opportunities, and “just right” for chaps sitting on the fence that are coming from developed tech hubs who don’t mind checking out Asia for a year. I think it will work really well in Singapore because of the government’s flexible pro-talent policy. I also think the S$20,000 + associated prestige of such a fellowship will go a long way in lowering the opportunity cost delta of local geeks dealing with peer and parental pressure.

The initiative’s long-term sustainability can be achieved via:

  1. Recoupment of the fellowship from startups that hire fellows
  2. Foundation donations
  3. Corporate sponsorships
  4. Government grants

Another wacky idea would be to raise the capital needed to operate this as a non-profit fund, and for the fellowships to be “investments” in people instead of companies. Fellows would be encouraged to pledge a portion of their future capital gains capped at some amount back to the fund; sort of a more scalable model for “serendipity” if you must. I’m drawn to the concept of going further upstream and investing in people, to grant them opportunities and experiences that they would otherwise not have obtained, even as I’m aware that more work will need to be done to ensure that the ROI and economics of such a model exists.

If this works, any emerging tech ecosystem can take this and use it as a bolt-on. Adjust the capital needed in proportion to the number of engineers desired. Involve the community and connect across the world. As for me, all that remains is for me to try and scrounge up at least S$1.2 million to give this a shot. Any help here would be welcomed.

“Supercharger” post photo courtesy of char1iej via Flickr

About James Chan

James Chan is an entrepreneur, investor, geek, photographer and husband/father based out of Singapore. Apart from frequent travels to Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia for work, James can also be found online via his trusty 15" Retina MacBook Pro or iPhone 6+.